Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Rethinking How College Students Take Notes

Over my five years of teaching undergraduates at The City University of New York campuses, your blogger noticed a growing trend of students relying on their computers during class and, later, their tablets and even smartphones. My students were using these devices to do everything from take notes and view readings to play Candy Crush and make weekend plans. Some of my highest-achieving students were quietly texting or gaming under their desks, while some of my struggling students were rushing to type down every word I said; there didn’t seem to be a real pattern to how device usage related to student grades or engagement in discussions. 

After discussing the topic with my students and exploring the research, I decided to implement a no-device policy. Their one saving grace was a mid-class “tech fix” that I allowed – a few minutes in the middle of class when students could check their phones and “check out” as a way to relax and refocus. Without this break, students’ device “withdrawal” may get the better of them when they’re trying their best to pay attention. If college grads are going to be expected to use computers for almost all tasks once they enter the work force, why did I decide to go back to the old-fashioned pen (or pencil!) and paper policy? The answer was clear and simple – Evidence-Based Research. There’s a lot of research out there about the way millennials engage with their devices and how tech use influences grades, happiness, relationships, and sleep. There are even university departments completely devoted to studying the relationship between people and their technology.

So how does technology play a role in college students’ learning? For starters, students who take notes on paper have the upper hand when it comes to test performance. This may seem counter intuitive – if we take notes on a computer we can capture so much more of what the instructor is saying, right? This may be true, but if we’re just blindly typing every word we hear without processing the information, we don’t have to summarize or paraphrase the concepts in our heads. When we take notes by hand, we’re forced to process all that information and be selective about what we want to write down. This helps us learn the material by focusing in on what’s important and how the concepts relate to one another. No matter how many times I reminded my students that all my slides were available online, a significant number insisted on trying to re-type everything I said – no easy feat given my rate of speech! When I took away their ability to use a keyboard, I nudged them towards developing effective note-taking skills. When I checked in with my class a few weeks after instating the policy, I got only positive feedback. The take-home message here: put away the laptop and immerse yourself in the lecture while jotting down only the most important, inter-related points. You can always audio-record the session or use a Livescribe Smartpen  if you’re worried about missing information.

Photo credit: Luke Jones: flickr cc

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